Thai filmmakers get together to try and change a screening and fee system they say is biased against them
The rumblings about unfairness in the Thai movie business, particularly the tendency of cinema chains to give priority to foreign movies to the detriment of local productions, have been bubbling under the surface for years. The recent release of statistics showing that the market share of Thai films dropped to an abysmally low 13 per cent in 2016 from an already miserly 18 per cent in 2015, was the last straw and now the Thai Filmmakers Network is calling for help from film organisations to save the industry.
Led by filmmakers Boonsong Nakphoo, Chartchai Ketnust and Tanwarin Sukhapisit, as well as a movie distributor and two movie buffs, the network is demanding a resolution to the multitude of problems the industry faces, especially in their dealings with the theatres.
Last Friday, the network submitted a letter to the Federation of National Film Associations of Thailand through its secretary general Weerasak Kowsurat urging the federation to act as an intermediary in solving the problems with two movie multiplex operators and also the National Film Board.
One of three demands involves funding for film projects which, they argue, should not just be limited to the physical filmmaking, but also cover research, workshops and film clubs. This would help create a new movie community outside of the conventional cinemas.
A second demand is for the multiplexes to limit the screening of foreign and Thai movies to 20 per cent of their space. Under this system, a multiplex with 10 cinemas, would only devote two of them to each movie.
“From Bangkok to Mandalay” director Chartchai says both filmmakers and filmgoers are very frustrated at going to a multiplex and seeing that most of the cinema is allocated to one blockbuster. Often as many as eight of the total 10 screens will be reserved for the Hollywood blockbuster of the moment, leaving only two free to show other movies. It has become such a problem that many moviegoers are leaving the cinema without even seeing a film, citing lack of choice as their reason.
“We are using the 20 per cent idea as a basis from which to start,” says Supab Rimtepatip, a veteran film writer who now works for TV’s Mono Channel and is putting his years of experience to use in helping the network.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that while Section 9 of the Thai Film Law states that the National Film Board has a duty to set screen quota, the section has never been exercised in the entire nine years since the Film Act was enacted.
The network is also calling for Thai movies to be screened five times a day for at least two weeks and for the movie theatre owners to stop collecting the Virtual Printing Fee (VPF).
In place for almost six years, the VPF is collected from film distributors to assist theatre operators in making the move from 35mm to digital projection systems. Filmmakers argue that the digital transition period is now over and the operators have more than got their money back by now.
The fee itself varies depending on the negotiations between cinema operators and film distributor and ranges from a few thousand baht per showtime to hundreds of thousands of baht per screening. For the filmmakers and distributors it’s bad news as after sharing the income with the theatre operators, they have to pay the multiplex operators on top. And in the case of many independent movies, the fee is higher than the income they get from the box office.
Tanwarin's film “A Gas Station” is a good example. On its first day, it earned just Bt9,000. Income improved over the following days but it was pulled from the programme after just one week, thus killing any chance for it to earn more income. Takings were not adequate to cover the VPF fee.
“When we complain about the unfair deals between indie filmmakers and multiplexes, people tend to say that if Thai filmmakers make good films, people will definitely watch them. Yet my film had many good reviews and was even selected for the Busan International Film Festival,” Tanwarin says.
“We are not trying to make enemies. Our aim is not to tell audience to support the Thai film industry by watching only Thai movies. You can choose what you want to see. We just want to open more spaces for screening and enjoy fair competition. We want to create a variety of movies so that the audience has more choices,” Tanwarin adds.
Movie theatres in Thailand are ruled by two multiplex chains while in the provinces they are operated by the “Sai Nang” or regional distributors. They set the prices of movie tickets and even the beverages sold at the theatre, as well as the length of advertisements while sharing the income with distributors. The network is urging the federation to work on a fair trade deal based on the Anti-Dumping and Countervailing Act and negotiate with operators on the complete range of complaints.
Supab says that if all demands are resolved, diversity in the cinema will be restored and open the door to a movie culture that Thais enjoyed prior to the advent of the multiplex 20 years ago.
The network leaders are quick to point out that their movement does not constitute a fight between filmmakers and the movie theatres. All they want is proper discussion between all parties and resolution of the problems in line with the law.
The timing might be propitious too as the Film Law is being currently revised to bring it more up to date with today’s situation.
And their decision to submit the demands to federation is equally sound, as it is after all the centre assigned to handle all subject matters for Thai film professionals. It also works closely with the government sector and the national film board, under whose authority the Film Law is exercised.
Problems in the film industry have rarely ended in legal action, with the exception of when they involve piracy and copyright. A case in point was Tanwarin's first film “Insects in the Backyard”, which was banned in 2010 for “explicit scenes”. The director took the case to the Administrative Court, which agreed to lift the ban if certain scenes were trimmed. “Insects” is slated from release this year.
While no one in the network wants another lawsuit, they might be left with no choice if the federation and/or other organisation don't response to their movement.